Alto Saxophonist Kenny Shanker is proof that an artist's direction isn't always reflected in their tonal personality. Shanker possesses a sleek-and-sweet tone that has served him well on dates with big name ghost band, like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, as well as smooth-leaning pianist David Benoit, but his own music operates outside of the "contemporary jazz" orbit.
Shanker occasionally hints at the simpler side of jazz, with an easily appealing, less-is-more melody ("Home Sweet Home") or a heart-wrenching ballad ("Sarah") that showcases his tender side, but he also puts his silky saxophone to good use in more striking fashion. He throws caution to the wind on the urgent "Fifth And Berry," which showcases a bevy of bravura solos from various band members, turns up the heat during his solo on "Quirk," and brings a sense of elation to "E.J."
While Shanker didn't invite any horn players to join him here, guitarist Lage Lund occasionally serves as his front line partner. Both men complement each other when working in tandem, but Lund's greater contributions come with his solos. He pushes at the boundaries of Shanker's songs in pleasurable ways and brings a thoroughly modern slant to this music. Pianist and label mate Art Hirahara also shares Lund's sense of adventure when soloing, and his comping pushes Shanker in some unexpected directions during the saxophonist's solo flights.
While Hirahara mans the keys for the majority of this music, Mike Eckroth takes over on three numbers, and his playing is in-line with Shanker in every way. His soloing on Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere" is a sparkling example of measured contemplation and musicality, and completely captures the emotional essence of "Sarah."
It took Shanker eight post-college years to step out and record this debut, and the album aged on the shelves for another two-plus years, but it was worth the wait. Steppin' Up signals the arrival of another unique and promising saxophone personality in the ever-impressive Posi-Tone stable.
Winter Rain; Fifth and Berry; Rhapsody; Quirk; E. J.; Sarah; Prowl; Saints; Home Sweet Home; Somewhere.
Kenny Shanker: alto saxophone; Art Hirahara: piano; Lage Lund: guitar; Yoshi Waki: bass; Brian Fishler: drums: Mike Eckroth: piano (4, 6, 10).